Betty Ehrenberg, chair of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC), the representative Jewish group that deals with other world religious bodies, was in Israel this week for the two-day visit there of Pope Francis.
Ehrenberg, who also serves as executive director of the World Jewish Congress, North America, had been part of a 20-member IJCIC delegation that met with Francis a year ago.
Q: What are your most striking memories of the visit?
A: They were a very exciting two days and they gave us a great sense of hope. Despite the unplanned event at the security barrier [in Bethlehem], people in Israel were very excited by the visit.
Before the visit, the pope was adamant about wanting to be able to be seen by the people. Did that happen?
He was quite exposed to the public while walking around in the Old City. And for the most part, he engaged with the public. Israel took every measure possible to make sure he would be secure and would be able to move about freely.
How was he received?
You could feel a friendliness and willingness to connect with him. For the past 43 years, IJCIC has played a key role in the development of a dialogue between Israel and the Vatican. We had a lot to do with encouraging the establishment of bilateral relations 20 years ago.
Did you get a chance to ask him about his promise to open the Vatican archives to historians interested in the actions of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust?
Nobody got to ask him about the archives. This pope is committed to releasing the archives. We have already thanked him and are committed to following up.
Also in Israel for the visit was David Michaels, director of United Nations and Intercommunal Affairs for B’nai B’rith International. He pointed out also that there was a diversity of religious leaders at the presidential residence — including Muslims who knelt in prayer.
There were leaders of the Hindu faith, Sufis among the Muslim leaders, Sikhs, Christian Orthodox leaders and many others in the audience. That to me signaled that the pope is universally admired, and that people are very hopeful that he may be able to achieve a greater level of comity among the different faiths.
Do you believe the visit — which Francis himself said he wanted to be “purely religious” — was hijacked by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who reportedly requested that the pope add a visit to the security barrier Israel had erected to separate Israel from the territories.
I don’t think it was hijacked, but I think it was a cynical attempt to try to exploit the visit for political purposes. It gave Israeli Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu a chance to explain that Israel put up the fence to protect the people of Israel from terrorism, and to say that Israel looks to the day when there is peace so that the security barrier can come down.
What are your thoughts about Francis’ visit to the Kotel with Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Sheik Omar Abboud, both religious leaders he had once worked with in Argentina.
What deeply impressed me is that after the pope pushed his note into the Kotel, Rabbi Skorka went up and put his own note into the Kotel and offered a silent prayer. And the pope, instead of walking away from the Kotel, waited for Rabbi Skorka to finish his prayer. Then all three embraced and walked away from the wall together. It was a very moving moment that showed true friendship.